Category Archives: golf

Look Out for Lexi!

American Lexi Thompson, 16, today became youngest woman to win a European Tour event when she shot a 5-under 67 to capture the Dubai Ladies Masters. She was already the youngest woman to win an LPGA event, having done so earlier this year.

Right now, she may be the most under-the-radar superstar in our midst.

Here’s what I wrote about her in October for ESPN.com:

Mike Whan is no dummy. Though not for the reason you may think.

Last week, the LPGA commissioner granted the petition of 16-year-old phenom Lexi Thompson to join the LPGA Tour two years short of its required age minimum. The standard was long ago instituted to protect young girls from the rigors of professionalism, and the sport from having to babysit.

Waiving that rule was the right move, despite my belief in minimum age restrictions in pro sports.

Thompson is poised, pretty and pretty darned good. And oh yeah, she’s American. The easy second-guessing call is that Wahn stamped her petition because the tour needs her to be The One in order to regain relevance with a U.S. audience tired of waiting on Michelle Wie and less able or willing to root for any of the myriad talented golfers from Asia atop the leaderboard.

In fact, the LPGA doesn’t need Thompson to be its Tiger (how long will I have to clarify with “pre-scandal” Tiger?) as much we might think — at least not right now. Sure, the women’s game still lacks a star of the stature of Annika Sorenstam or Lorena Ochoa. Yet all but two of the players in the top 10 are in their 20s, (average age: a tad over 26), and four are American (same as in the men’s rankings).

“If you’re the commissioner of any sport,” Whan told me on Tuesday, “one thing you worry about is, ‘Do I have a crop of young stars almost ready to grab the baton, or are my stars heading to retirement?’ I don’t spend a lot of time worrying because most of my best players are under 30. Add Lexi to that, and [No. 1] Yani [Tseng] is 22. Michelle Wie, at 21, has her best golf ahead. I’ve got some pretty good baton takers coming along.”

Whan is smart because he made granting Thompson’s petition a tap-in gimme by forcing her to earn her way onto the tour.

That seed was planted in December when Whan denied Thompson’s request to play in up to 12 LPGA tournaments in 2011 under sponsor exemptions — double the number allowed non-members. Had he granted it, the engaging 5-foot-11 teen would have certainly been showered with more invites to dance than a head cheerleader. She had turned pro without tour membership the previous June and finished 10th at the U.S. Women’s Open (which she qualified for) and second at the Evian Masters. Playing just a handful of tournaments, she earned more than $300,000.

Despite that quick success, Whan had the temerity to tell Thompson’s team: “Not yet.” He told them, however, that the sport was relaxing rules for participants in Monday qualifiers and Q-school, essentially granting Thompson “the opportunity to prove” she belonged on tour. “I said, ‘If you can [play on tour], you will,” he said. “I think [her parents and agent] were ready a year ago, but I’m not sure she was ready a year ago.”

This year, Thompson has played like many a mid-level handicapper — some good rounds, some horrendous. Whan watched most of them, especially the horrendous ones, particularly a final-round 78 in May at the Avnet LPGA Classic in Mobile, Ala. Thompson woke up Sunday morning tied for the lead. She finished tied for 19th, nine strokes behind the winner.

In the wake of that abysmal day Wahn saw something that told him this young golfer just might be ready. “She was honest with herself, the media and fans,” the commish said. “She was disappointed. Said she can play better. It happens. She didn’t wilt, didn’t run to the car, avoid the media tent or ignore the people with Sharpies. She signed all the autographs and said it was part of golf. She didn’t change her demeanor or approach. I’m not sure I would have handled it the same way.”

In July, Thompson blew away the field in Stage 1 of Q-school, winning by 10 strokes. The second of three stages was to be played in late September. But just prior, her prodigious talent caught up with her precocious nature. She won the Navistar Classic by five strokes, becoming the youngest LPGA Tour event winner ever — by two years.

Based on that win, Thompson again petitioned for LPGA acceptance. This time, Whan, in what might be among the more scrutinized decisions of his two-year tenure, said “yes.”

“It’s been a nice process,” he said. “I haven’t been doing this job a long time. But it seemed strange to get a letter saying, ‘I’d like to be an LPGA member, and here’s why.’ We set rules for a reason. If we’re going to step outside those rules, that was the kind of comfort we need. To earn your way onto the tour the old-fashioned way, especially if you’re under our age regulation, is good for the tour and the player.”

But is she good enough? That remains to be seen.

She’ll face tough overseas competition (potentially on courses far from home). Since recovering from the English-language rules fiasco of 2008 under previous commissioner Carolyn Bivens, the tour’s diversity has allowed it to grow internationally.

“I missed that wave,” Whan said (though he left out: thankfully!). “When I came in, I said, ‘Hey guys, we’re a business going global. One thing constant among any business going global is mistakes.’ No CEO who’s taken their business global sits back and says, ‘Man that is easy.'”

The next stops are South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan and Mexico, and a crop of young Americans, including Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Wie, is showing up on Sundays more often than in recent years.

Whan is convinced Thompson is ready to join them. And for now that’s good enough.

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Step back, Jack? Not quite. But Tiger Woods is Finally Ready to Win Again

I’ve gone on record saying Tiger Woods will not surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major golf championships. He’s got 14, as almost every golf fan knows. But he’ll be 36 years old at the end of this month, and to topple Jack he’ll have to win five more majors at an age when time is more foe than friendly.

Indeed throughout golf history only 17 other men have won as many as five majors in their entire careers–and Phil Michelson, considered maybe the second-best golfer of this era, isn’t among them. Lefty has four.

I’m not ready to back down from my Tiger-won’t-jack-Jack prediction just yet, but I will say this: Tiger is ready to win again.

In fact, I think he’ll win at least one major in 2012. And if it’s The Masters in April (the most tiger-friendly major), he just may win two next year.

And if he does that, well, check back with me then.

Tiger won a tournament on Sunday, his first victory (in damn near anything, really) for the first time in 749 days and about 356,567 moments that probably sucked.

He won the Chevron World Challenge, his own personal outing, of sorts. With only 17 participants it wasn’t very worldly, which some have used to diminish the triumph.

But to me it wasn’t simply that he won. Indeed had he won handily it would have been a nice story and little more.

It was how he won–with klutch birdie puts on Nos. 17 and 18 to overcome a one-shot deficit to another Masters champion, Zach Johnson.

Suddenly, we were all watching again–switching even from compelling NFl games (I was working the remote on Green Bay-Giants) to watch Tiger stare, pace, crouch, focus, stare, pace, address the ball and …

Even as Johnson watched Tiger’s final birdie roll towards and into the cup (launching a Tiger roar the likes of which I don’t think we’ve ever seen/heard), the expression on his face simply said, Yeah, he’s back.

For the first time in what seems like a lifetime, an opponent seemed to know an important putt by Tiger Woods was going dead into the cup.

Woods won’t likely become dominant again. He’ll have more bad days, bad tournaments.

Gone are the days when merely stepping onto the first tee was worth three to five strokes against a field intimidated by his presence.

That Tiger is done.

But this Tiger is healthy. And seemingly confident again.

This Tiger can win. And will.

Tiger Woods > Rory McIlroy

Rory is special, but he has a long way to go before he becomes golf's Tiger

Sorry folks, Rory McIlroy is no Tiger Woods. I love the kid. Was rooting for him as he treated Congressional like it was a weak muni course.
But he’s no Tiger Woods.
And not just because he’s not American (though that’s part of it).
He’s no Tiger because, well, he’s simply no Tiger. By the time Woods won his first major–the ’97 Masters, at the age of 21–he was already a national phenomenon. Even a global one.
We’d known him since he was a tyke appearing on the Mike Douglas Show. We watched him make us care about the national amateurs (name someone who’s won it since).
Then we watched him. And watched him. We watched him live up to the hype at every level. We watched him chase a bar set so high (Jacks’s 18 majors) it seemed ludicrous–except it was Tiger. So we got on board. We bought into the ludicrous and thought it possible.
We watched him become the next Michael Jordan–a straight-up global icon who attracted fans, TV ratings and corporate dollars as if they were lollipops at the reception desk.
We watched him hit shots we still remember. We watched him become the first jacked golfer.
We watched him change the game.
Of course, we also watched him fall. Perhaps the most precipitous fall we’ve ever seen among sports icons.
That’s why so many have been so quick to anoint Rory as the next…
I get it. The sport needs him. Badly.
Since Woods’ fall, golf has become, well, just golf again. Not even part of the discussion when it comes to games that capture those who care little about the game itself, but are captivated by the likes of Woods and…maybe Rory.
And maybe even soon.
But not yet.

Nicklaus > Tiger

All pain and no gains might cost Tiger his most coveted goal.

Tiger Woods walked off the course today after shooting a 42 (quell horror!) on the front nine at The Players Championships. He blamed not so much the score but the pain in his surgically repaired knee, upon which he was limping badly.
Can’t help but wonder now if Woods’ chance of catching Jack Nicklaus’ majors record is crippled, as well. Perhaps irreparably.
The gap is just too wide and the greatest golfer of our generation is showing me nothing that says he’ll be capable of closing it.
Okay, maybe not “nothing,” He’s shown the fire, the spirit and the competitiveness to do it.
But while the heart might be willing, the body (whether the swing or age is the primary culprit) just doesn’t seem capable of following.
Interesting, if Woods does not break the record, will history blame the inevitable effects of age and injuries-or will the self-inflicted wounds of scandal be charged for his falling short?

Tiger’s Next Swing Should Be On the First Tee.

This may sound strange coming from a journalist, but I hope the next sound I hear coming from Tiger Woods is the thwack of his driver against a Nike golf ball on the first tee of a PGA Tour tournament.
I don’t want to hear any more apologies.
No more sorrys.
No Oprah, Costas or anyone. If Mark Steinberg called me and said Tiger wanted to talk to me tomorrow, I’d say, “No!” (Okay, no I wouldn’t, but you get my point.)
Like many others I criticized Tiger et al for refusing to answer questions last Friday. But his near 19-minute statement, I, frankly, don’t want to know anything else except when he’s going to tee it up again.
I don’t care why he did what he did. I don’t need to hear his dissect his soul.
I don’t even care anymore what happened that night inside the house.
And I believe most reasonable people don’t care either.
This was not a crime (Vick, etc.), nor did Tiger compromise or insult his sport (A-Rod, McGwire, etc.) What happened then and now, and what happens tomorrow, is between the Woods.
None of my business.
And none of yours.
So complete your rehab, Tiger, get back in the gym, hit the practice range, tee it up and smack it right down the fairway.
That’s all I want to see.

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Tiger: The First Swing

It was an event unlike any we’ve seen since Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive. Every network was tuned in. Every eye or ear eager to hear what Tiger Woods would have to say after nearly 80 days in hiding.
It was an odd setting, a stark room with a lone podium before an eerie blue curtain. The heads in the audience were merely that for much of the event – heads – until the primary camera broke and we were given a glance at a few of the people sitting before him to his right.
It lasted longer than most expected.
And I think it was better than most expected.
Tiger Woods said what he had to say. He hit all the salient points, used all the necessary words. He took ownership of his actions and apologized to everyone who may have been hurt or disappointed.
He was contrite, and yet defiant at times – staring into the camera when he apologized to the children of the Tiger Woods Learning Center (very appropriate), and top the parents of children who had held him up as a role model. And when he flat out told the media to “stop following my wife and kids.” (Agreed!)
He was not the Tiger I last saw in person a couple of years ago. But how could he have been? Everything that guy was is gone.
He was emotional. He was swagger-less.
Today was step one is trying to recover what he can.
I criticized him for not agreeing to take questions from the media (and for trying to control every aspect of the event), but now I know why: He’s not ready. Not even close.
He said he’s going back to rehab, and I believe he will be ready soon. And when he does I think he will submit to an interview by one of the major, respected journalists, Roberts (who cut her teeth in sports), Bob Costas or Bryant Gumbel.
And then he will play golf. (I think he’ll be back on Tour in ’10)
Until then, he’s back practicing golf. He’s running.
Most important, he’s working on Tiger.
He talked about being a man of integrity. We’ll see.
He talked about having more respect for the game. We’ll see.
Tiger’s always been about hard work and preparation. Today he laid out for us what we should expect of Tiger 2.0.
Now let’s see if he, in the language of his sport, sticks it or whiffs.

The Shark Earned This Finale

The Shark's Final Swim

The Shark's Final Swim

Hope you followed him. No, not him. Not Tiger. I wasn’t concerned with what Woods did at the Masters on Thursday and Friday. He does not produce highlights on Thursday and Friday. So I didn’t need a Tiger Cam for the first and second rounds at Augusta.

Instead, I followed one of the game’s greatest characters, and one of its greatest players.

I followed the guy who was Tiger – the top player in the world – for 331 weeks.

The guy who’s produced some of the Masters’ most memorable moments.

I followed Greg Norman.

The 54-year-old Aussie who very well may have playedhis last Masters.

The guy who deserves a green jacket more than Zach Johnson and a few others, honestly.

This was Norman’s 23rd Masters, a rightly-earned likely-swan turn. He’ll be there based on his third-place finish at last year’s British Open. It was a “comeback” that allowed us to remember just how much golf missed his presence, his class.

And he brought Chris Evert along. America’s sweetheart is now Shark’s sweetheart, and his return to Augusta is in part due to how she helped him overcome demons that we won’t let him forget:

*The bogey on 18 on 1986 to miss a playoff.

*The playoff loss to Larry Mize in ’87.

*And of course, ’96, losing by five strokes after leading by six as the sun rose on Sunday.

Norman could have disappeared then. And he did, slowly. He finished third in he Masters two years later but missed the cut three of the five years after ’96. Demons do that.

Demons also do divorce, but demons didn’t count on Chrissie. She loved him and lifted him from the ashes of his professional and personal failures. She’d been there, too. On both fronts. The only difference was that she overcame her demons.

“She completely understands,” he told the BBC earlier this year. And now, it seems, so does he.

So I hope you follow him. Not because he might have earned a green jacket. That didn’t happen, of course. He didn’t even make the cut. But no matter.

I followed him because he seemed to be having fun. Because he deserves more than we recognize and remember him for.

Follow him because he understands, finally.

Tiger: The Most Clutch Athlete Ever

Thought he didn't win the Masters, he remains Mr. Clutch

Thought he didn't win the Masters, he remains Mr. Clutch

Tiger Woods did not win the Masters. But If he’d been Kenny Payne, he would have. If he had to make the shots Payne needed to make on the final two holes in order to win the coveted green jacket, he would have.

Greg Norman agrees. “Tiger Woods, to me, is the best clutch putter I’ve ever seen in the game of golf,” he said earlier this week.

It’s easy to say that, given the gallery of fist-pumping highlights Woods has produced on 18th greens all over the world, including his most recent: the 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole at Bay Hill to beat Sean O’Hair.

Quite frankly, as I watched the moment with a group of very loud friends, I didn’t think he’d make it. It was too late in the day and there was barely enough sunlight to see, let alone to accurately assess the contour of the green. And it was too soon. It was only Woods’ third tournament after a long layoff and knee surgery. Too soon.

“He won’t make it,” I said as he prepared to putt.

I’ll never say those words again.

Putts like that are why Norman and others say he’s the best clutch putter ever, but they don’t go far enough. He’s also the best clutch golfer ever. His putts often overshadow the shots he makes in order to set up the winning putt.

At Bay Hill, for instance, few talked about the 164-yard approach shot Woods made to within 12 feet. He could have hit an 8-iron that distance. But Woods assesses each shot like a NASA scientist and a fighting wind was a clear factor.

The golf gods tell you to take more club that you need in thess conditions but when your mind knows you might hit the ball 20 yards over the green, your body goes cartoonish on you and you swing like a 46-handicapper.

But you’re not Tiger Woods. He pulled out a 5 iron, a club he easily hits 200 yards. The downside was huge: a slight mis-hit would have ended up in the water near the green, a full-on clean shot might have sailed the flag into the bunker behind the green.

But Tiger lasered the ball into Mother Nature’s teeth; it landed where he needed it to be to give him a chance. And that’s all he needs. Birdie. Win.

But even declaring Woods the best clutch golfer ever doesn’t go far enough. He’s the best clutch athlete ever. Ever.

More than any other athlete, in any sport, if winning comes down to a single play, a singular convergence of mind, body and moment, Woods will come through.

Many great athletes are also clutch, but not always. And many athletes who’ve never been called great by anyone outside their own family were extremely clutch. Greatness is about talent and dominance. Clutch is about execution when the eyes of the world are upon you.

Here’s my list of the 10 most clutch athletes ever:

1. Tiger Woods

2. Michael Jordan

3. Joe Montana

4. Reggie Jackson

5. Jimmy Connors

6. Michael Phelps

7. Jesse Owens

8. Robert Horry

9. Florence Griffith Joyner

10. Reggie Miller

No doubt there are others – from eras I did not witness and sports I don’t pretend to be an expert in. (Hockey fans, who should be on this list? Gordie Howe? Bobby Orr? Patrick Roy?) And there’s no boxer on the list because fights rarely come down to “moments.”

I also struggled for a pitcher, though Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale made noise.

And I pondered Babe Didrikson, Bo Jackson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Jim Brown.

But I only had ten slots. And each of the athletes on my list created memorable moments I could see, images I could recall as if they occurred this afternoon. (Even if those images are grainy flip clips, as with Owens).

And at least one of them will likely create many more, beginning next Sunday.

Sports Needs an Economic Attitude Adjustment

Great coach. But maybe a bit out of touch.

Great coach. But maybe a bit out of touch.

It’s getting ugly out there.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says he’ll slash his pay package by as much as 25 percent in order to save a few jobs. However, he can’t save them all. Anonymous team employees throughout sports are being sliced with the same sickle that has eliminated millions of jobs across America since last fall. NBA owners are divvying up $200 million in loans to cover millions in shortfalls due to diminishing ticket buyers and vanishing sponsors.

Every sport, maybe for the first time ever, is feeling the same economic pinch as the fans.

Pretty soon, NASCAR teams may consider carpooling.

And yet: Albert Haynesworth gets $100 million from Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, Manny Ramirez snub $45 million like it’s s stick insult before coming to his senses this week – and Jim Calhoun (pictured) just doesn’t get it.

Ugly.

The relationship between sports and fans has long been tenuous – not coincidentally, as salaries have risen to Wall Street CEOesque levels. That’s especially true among fans of a generation when their own paychecks carried pretty much the same digits as the men (and, yes, they were mostly men then, too) they cheered. Superstars always made superstar money, but there was a time when the working-stiff jock actually made near working-stiff wages.

So did most coaches – guys who chose the profession for the love of their sport more than the love of money.

Not anymore. Sports has created a new, young class of fast-twitch millionaires: guys who won the gene pool lottery and, in most instances, applied diligence, discipline and plain old hard work to their physical gifts and reached the highest level of their sport. And on the sidelines, pro coaches can afford to live next door to their superstars. In college, many make more than all but their elite players ever will.

I don’t begrudge any of them. I’ve always chuckled at the petty grumblings of folks who rail against them for one sin (“They’re not as good as their predecessors.”) or another (“They don’t hustle.”) when what they really mean is: They make too much damn money.

I typically chalk up their rants to ignorance and jealousy, and move on.

But now it could get uglier than a few rants. As more Americans are stripped of their livelihoods each day, sports is being given less of a pass.

Calhoun was asked at a postgame press conference to comment on his $1.6 million annual base salary at UConn, which makes him one of the highest-paid state employees at a time when Connecticut is facing a reported $944 million budget deficit that is projected to be $8 billion in two years.

His snippy response – “My advice to you is, shut up,” followed by a rift on how much money the Huskies generate for the university – has been polarizing. Governor M. Jodi Rell called it “embarrassing,” and the leaders of the state’s General Assembly want Calhoun to be reprimanded by the university. Conversely, many have defended the coach’s reaction, saying his success through the years more than justifies his compensation – even in these trying times.

Calhoun could have been more mature in his response, even if he has the data to back his argument. As it stands, he’s come off as the newest poster boy for the excesses of sports and showed how out of touch he is with Joe Taxpayer.

And it’s more than an isolated tempest. Attendance will likely be unaffected in Storrs, but loyal ticket-buyers elsewhere are deciding they can no longer afford to see their favorite team live or buy that $100 jersey; or they simply no longer have the desire to go see athletes and coaches who don’t seem to feel their pain.

As they grow weary of the kind of “not-my-economic problem” attitude displayed by Calhoun, Ramirez and others, sports may lose its status as The Great Escape. More fans may no longer see sports as a respite from the woes of their lives.

If sports can no longer serve that purpose, then what’s its purpose?

That’s a question no one wants to answer.

Reuters photograph

Wie 2.0: Finally a Player?

Wie LPGA GolfMichelle Wie is a rookie. Hard to fathom, I know. It took me a few moments to fully digest the fact that the most recognizable female golfer playing today is only 19.

That can’t be possible, I thought. Not after having watched Wie bloom, blossom, wilt, fade stumble and almost wither away for years now. No question, she’s lived a life – by jock’s standards.

But thankfully, she’s got a lot more life to live.

I want to see Michelle Wie win, and I think she will.

She deserves to win. It wasn’t fully her fault that she was thrust into the “next Tiger Woods” vortex way too prematurely. Nor that her money-grubbing team seemed to make every wrong decision for her game and growth while making every “right” decision for her bank account.

Through it all, Wie kept swinging that big, bold swing that is her hallmark. A swing so big her team thought pitting her against men was a bright idea. (See previous paragraph, last sentence.)

No doubt, Wie has shanked a few. She didn’t make too many friends during her first years on the tour (not unexpected when she was essentially still a child), and as she matured her growing pangs played out not unlike those of many Hollywood Bad Girls. Okay, not quite that bad but on the course she endured so many fits and faults you wondered if she would ever become a player rather than a prodigy.

The “next Tiger” tag was taken off of her bag long ago.

Now she’s about the tee it up for the first time as a rookie, and that’s just about right. Last year, Wie earned (emphasis intended) her tour card at LPGA Q-School and will participate at the SBS Open at Turtle Bay in Hawaii, not far from where she grew up, not as a side (or freak) show, but as a legitimate player.

Finally, she has a chance to earn her stardom. Earn the attention she will inevitably attract.

Earn her millions.

Finally, she seems ready to measured less by the length of her drives and the size of her endorsements than by her place on the leaderboard.

Her longtime instructor, David Leadbetter, says she’s “very focused” and “rarin’ to go.”

Her aim is to qualify for the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April, the LPGA’s first major. To do so, she’s have to win one of the three events she’s scheduled to play before Kraft or be in the top 30 of the money list by the end of the Phoenix event, which occurs the week before the Kraft Nabisco.

She can’t play, according to the LPGA, based on an exemption.

In other words, she’ll have to do more than merely be the Michelle Wie we’ve seen, known and moaned about.

That’s a tall order for any rookie but this one very tall rookie seems ready. Finally.

AP Photo